cast: Marlene Dietrich, Cary Grant, Herbert Marshall, and Dickie Moore
director: Josef von Sternberg
93 minutes (PG) 1932
Universal Pictures DVD Region 2 retail
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
Blonde Venus is the fourth film to feature both the German ice queen Marlene Dietrich and the Austrian auteur Josef von Sternberg, who discovered her for his 1930 film The Blue Angel. Playing the role with which she has arguable become most associated, Dietrich’s icy charisma and unconventional beauty carry the film despite her being miscast and the film itself being little more than an unfocussed mix of clashing styles and ideas.
While on a walking holiday in Germany, Ned Faraday (Herbert Marshall) stumbles across a number of actresses cavorting naked in a river. Unsurprisingly he immediately falls in love with one of them and returns with her to America where he marries her before coming down with a potentially terminal case of radiation poisoning. In order to make enough money to send her husband to Europe to receive treatment, Helen Faraday (Dietrich) returns to her actress roots and takes to the stage again in a seedy nightclub where she gets noticed by Nick Townsend a playboy-come-politician who loans her the money for her husband’s treatment. Months later, Faraday returns to find his wife and child gone and living with Townsend. Resentful and hurt he demands custody of his child, prompting Helen to flee from town to town in an vain attempt to keep her child. When Faraday finally tracks his estranged wife down and takes his son back, Helen flees to South America and then Paris where she moves from man to man until she takes Paris by storm as a singer allowing Townsend to track her down again and return her to America where she re-unites with her husband and child.
If this summary feels disjointed and largely empty it is because that is exactly what the plot is. Von Sternberg shows little interest in exploring why Faraday should want to get rid of his wife (they don’t actually show her being unfaithful) or why he would want her back. In fact, despite the relationship between Ned and Helen being the driving force behind this film, there is precious little time spent developing either of their characters. Instead what we have is a film that lurches uncomfortably from German neo-romanticism in the opening sequences, to flights of fantasy (where Helen becomes a huge star without even trying and manifestly not being a particularly good singer) to unconvincing social realism as one minute Helen is given $1,500 dollars and the next she’s in the poor house. In fact, the film lacks anything that could be construed as a plot or a point. Instead, it is a true vehicle for Dietrich as it trundles along occasionally providing her an opportunity to sing.
The musical numbers are striking not only for their rather unique style but also for the shocking quality of the songs. The first number has a chorus line emerge blacked up and wearing afros. The girls dance around with a gorilla on a lead who molests the audience convincingly and then stands centre-stage and strips off to reveal Dietrich in a blonde afro who proceeds to sing a song about voodoo. If this was not weird enough, a later number sees her emerge wearing a top hat and morning suit only for her to flirt with the dancing girls. Between expressing quasi-racist admiration for black sexuality and suggesting that Dietrich might well be a lesbian, this is pretty transgressive stuff but again, it clashes terribly with the idea that Dietrich is supposed to be playing a devoted wife and mother.
Clearly designed as a star vehicle, Blonde Venus is utterly confused and seems to have been made in a terrible rush with nothing having been thought out. Perhaps originally there was going to be some point about Helen being a lesbian who uses her looks to get what she wants from men but any such edge has long-since disappeared into the mists of history. Instead, all we are left with are a few weirdly hypnotic musical numbers performed by a woman who really is not the world’s greatest singer. She does look fantastic though, and those fitted jackets with huge fur collars really should come back into style.